With a voice cast that includes Skyler Gisondo, Kiersey Clemons, Peter S. Kim, and Jaboukie Young-White, and guests such as Billy Porter, Zoey Deutch, Camila Mendes, Rob Delaney, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ben Schwartz, JB Smoove, John Leguizamo, and Colton Dunn, this latest animation for grown ups follows 4 besties in middle school who hang out on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, 'the pulsing heart of hypebeast culture'.
A young Amazonian girl bounding around on a tree like Mowgli in The Jungle Book opens this Peruvian/Dutch/German co-production. We soon discover that this is the Ainbo of the title, and that her best friend, Zumi, is about to be crowned leader of their tribe. A relatively quick whip-round of characters introduces us to the two leads; a smarmy village thug called Atok; Zumi’s father and current tribal chief, Huarinka; Ainbo’s foster mother, Chuni; as well as two ‘loopy’ spirit guides, Dillo and Vaca (a bespectacled armadillo and a clumsy tapir).
The environmental theme is also introduced early on, in the form of dying fish and disease in the village, attributed to a curse but, as we find out later, the result of something more real, and more troubling. Ainbo is convinced by her spirit guides to embark on a trek to find a magical root that will save the village. On her journey, she must deal with various perils, ranging from a pursuing Atok, and a gigantic sloth in his volcano home, to the jungle demon, Yakuruna, the appearance of whom might be a bit much for the smaller humans in the audience.
Throughout Ainbo’s quest, Zumi is trying to juggle her new leadership duties with her concerns for her best friend’s safety. This sisterly dynamic plays out in a familiar way – it’s basically Elsa and Anna in the jungle but without all the irritating singing.
Co-directors Richard Claus and Jose Zelada keep the pace tight and the sight gags light, while also attempting to address the actual ‘curse’ of the Amazon, the despoliation of nature.
The message of standing up to the corporate vandals is admirable, though at one point it strays dangerously close to lumping modern medicine in with the mining companies’ dirty tricks.
There are nicely rendered visuals (with art direction by Pierre Salazar), especially in the village scenes, and the film’s resolution, while a little sad, is also affirming.
Unlike some of Pixar’s work, there’s not much here for adults, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s refreshing to occasionally find a film that aims squarely at a younger audience.
After a slightly inconsistent first season, Star Trek’s newest animated series, the aptly named Lower Decks, returns with an unapologetic nosedive into the more absurdist culture of Easter-eggs, running gags and what the show’s relatable band of rogues affectionately call ‘Sci-fi stuff’. In fact, with the first four episodes of the show released to critics, if one were to create a drinking game based on references to previous Star Trek incarnations, one would be suffering severe liver damage within hours. And while it’s a lot of fun, even for the casual viewer, Lower Decks definitely caters to Trek fans with a decent understanding of the franchise and its past 50+ years.
A notable improvement on the first season is the voice acting, with the primary cast seemingly having found their grooves, grounding their respective characters with more nuanced and balanced performances, which essentially helps create more of that familiar Star Trek we’re-all-in-this-together atmosphere that served the likes of The Next Generation and Voyager so well. Speaking of which, dedicated fans will be pleased to note that Trek alums Jonathan Frakes (William Riker) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris) make some fantastically satirical cameos in what would seem to be a new Lower Decks institution.
As for this season’s overall story arc, Lower Decks is again focusing on the personal growth of The Cerritos’ lower ranked crew members, with interpersonal relationships, self-awareness and mundane catastrophes taking precedence over the geo-political galactic turmoil playing out in the background. Which thankfully makes for genuinely heartfelt moments to counterbalance the constant onslaught of jokes and unapologetic puns.
Although Trekkers will undoubtedly adore Lower Decks’ sophomore season, it has to be said that animation fans who lean more toward Rick & Morty, or even Family Guy may not find the series quite edgy enough. But, judging by the first few episodes, what Lower Decks lacks in edge is more than compensated for in comedy, action and all the ‘sci-fi stuff’ you could ask for.
If you’re not aware of animator Will Vinton’s filmography, there’s a good chance that humming a few bars of Heard it Through the Grapevine will conjure up images of the anthropomorphic California Raisins, who went from being a PSA to becoming a huge merchandise commodity, incorporating computer games, albums, t-shirts and even a syndicated Saturday morning cartoon show. That’s big money, right there. Unfortunately for Vinton’s employees, who worked tirelessly to animate the musical dried grapes, their boss didn’t negotiate a better contract. As such, all the profits went to their client, California Raisin Advisory Board.
This is just one story of several in Claydream, directed by Marq Evans (The Glamour and the Squalor), which shows Vinton’s passion for animation overshadowed by his business aptitude. Wait till you hear about his story with the then fledgling company, Pixar.
Started prior to Vinton’s death from blood cancer in 2018, Evans interviews his subject and various employees about the journey from being a fledgling animation studio running on good-will, to being a slightly bigger animation studio running on good-will.
For Vinton, the goal was to be the Walt Disney of Claymation – just take a look at that company logo! – to the detriment of everything else. Not in a bloodthirsty, cutthroat kind of way though. Vinton is portrayed as a man who was perpetually hopeful to the point that if things weren’t going too well, it was best to just ignore it till it fixed itself or went away. Something his ex-wife testifies to on behalf of herself and his first wife. Oh, and there was that one time his first partner in crime, with whom he won an Oscar, threatened to assassinate him.
Working solely in clay, Evans suggests there was a myopic view of Vinton’s work by the public and entertainment industry. Vinton wanted to experiment with his art, pushing it beyond the limited scope of Gumby. However, his first foray into feature films, The Adventures of Mark Twain, despite all its surreal scenes sure to terrify the young, was pushed as a family film. A family film with warnings that it might be too full-on for the kiddies. Unsurprisingly, it tanked.
Vinton was seemingly too innocent for a world that was becoming increasingly monetised and business-oriented. As Evans charts the ‘rise’ of Vinton’s success, he cuts back and forth to the legal case between the claydreamer and Nike CEO, Phil Knight.
Knight saw Vinton’s studio as a profitable investment and became a shareholder in 1998. Unbeknownst to Vinton, Knight soon began buying out other shareholders before finally introducing a clause into his contract which gave the majority shareholder the right to fire Vinton from his own company.
Evans uses footage from the legal dispositions and, to paraphrase The Simpsons, if you pause it just right you can see Vinton’s heart break as he realises the world around him is collapsing. Knowing that Knight’s power grab, and putting his son Travis on the board of directors, led to Laika Studios, will certainly sour Kubo and the Two strings for many.
At its heart though, Claydream doesn’t mourn a talent, but celebrates it. Punctuated with clips from his work, Vinton’s employees have nothing but good things to say about their boss. Even if his contracts with them weren’t legally binding to begin with, they can’t fault someone for wanting to maintain the joy he got from animation. You just wish someone had tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, ‘Will, don’t forget to employ lawyers.’
There are big shoes to fill, both literally and metaphorically, when taking on a Space Jam sequel.
The beloved ‘90s flick is, for many, a cherished piece of nostalgia that not only amplified the reputation of basketball superstar Michael Jordan but brought Bugs Bunny and his wacky Looney Tunes comrades back into the mainstream.
Now, twenty-five years later, director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, Night School) dreams in vibrant-colour and feelgood splendour in the LeBron James (also a producer) lead standalone sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy.
We learn from the get-go that James has worn the expectation of greatness since childhood. Whether from his mother or coach, the payoff brought on from hard work and dedication is not lost on him. Alas, it is a bittersweet farewell to childhood (RIP Gameboy) and all of the activities that, despite bringing joy, are but distractions for James on the path to excellence.
A brief montage highlighting James’ decorated career brings us to present-day Los Angeles. We now meet a dedicated entrepreneur, philanthropist and family man who despite his immense wealth, still carries with him a studious work ethic that he enforces upon his children, particularly his youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe).
Unable to accept Dom’s passion for making video games, opting to have him focus instead on basketball, James must reckon with his beliefs. It is a feat that materialises physically as James and Dom are tricked into entering the Warner 3000 Server-Verse, a digital universe composed of beloved Warner Bros. IP, by a megalomaniac and shimmeringly dressed A.I., Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle, a delight).
Now a hand-drawn being, James is transported to the dysfunctional Looney Tunes world and must reunite the estranged Tunes (a highlight overloaded with fun references to other properties) to defeat Al-G and his team of monster creations in a game of basketball. To lose would result in James’ imprisonment and the deletion of the Looney Tunes.
Had the trailer left you worried A New Legacy would be a busy explosion of Warner Bros. IP fighting for attention, audiences need not fear. Their presence, in large part observed as characters on the sideline, offers both chuckles and a fresh take in showcasing the Tunes brand of animated dysfunction. (We are not quite watching ‘Ready Player LeBron’ but it would not be surprising if Warner Bros. were working on a live-action adaptation of The Iron Giant.)
What is most thrilling about A New Legacy is the liveliness of the worlds created, with each destination carrying with it a varying style of animation that brings with it added freshness. The key standouts here being the 2D elements, a polished homage to the Tunes origins, and the sleek CGI designs of the basketball duel which, along with the bass-heavy soundtrack, plants the series firmly into 2021.
Character-wise, James and Joe’s relationship feels real, even if the script haphazardly dives too deep into the conventions of sports-drama/family storytelling. These bumpy bouts of dialogue, often feeling like cliched pep-talks, remain fleeting, and are often diffused by humour brought out in a solid voice-cast that brims with personality (albeit the occasional Happy Gilmore impression ringing through).
Given the long stint between Space Jam films, it is tricky to predict what is next for the series: Will James return? Can a sequel work with other sports? Will it be a generational thing? Whatever the case may be, if the antics are as good as they are in A New Legacy, this certainly won’t be all, folks.
Twenty years after Billy Crystal and John Goodman – as their not-so-scary animated monster alter-egos Mike and Sulley – discovered how laughing kids create ten times more energy than screaming kids, the lovable furry duo return with their own ten-part series, Monsters at Work.
Receiving a live action adaption back in 2003, author Seiko Tanabe’s classic short story Josee, the Tiger & the Fish finally gets the anime treatment thanks to animation studio BONES, the team behind the wildly popular fantasy series My Hero Academia, Fullmetal Alchemist and the sci-fi Eureka Seven.
First published in 1984, the story follows the tumultuous relationship between Tsuneo, a hapless college student with a passion for diving, and a young wheelchair bound woman, who calls herself Josee, after a character from her favourite novel.
Hoping to make extra money for a diving trip, Tsuneo reluctantly takes a job as Josee’s caretaker, instantly butting heads with his opinionated charge. But as the two eventually find common ground, a romance blossoms, opening up both their worlds and forcing each to re-evaluate their future perspectives, and their complicated relationships with those around them.
While it’s easy to write the anime off as a simple teen romance, reducing the film to such a simplistic genre note would be an injustice to a charmingly realised fable.
Under the guidance of director Kôtarô Tamura, who makes his animated feature debut, JTF has been crafted into a touching, and at times heartbreaking film laced with genuine comedic moments. While the pacing of the film is a little inconsistent, lagging in places, his fully-realised characters, laden with emotional coming-of-age angst and dysfunction, manage to carry the story forward.
As for the animation itself, BONES has delivered a beautiful feature that brings to mind the work of Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children) and early Ghibli films, with rich warm skylines, vibrant cityscapes merged with dreamlike oceanscapes, colourful faux lens-flares and domesticated action sequences that glide across the film’s instrumental soundtrack.
While all of this creates a wonderfully engaging film, JTF gains authenticity thanks to its representation of Josee’s condition. Confined to a wheelchair since birth, her journey as the film’s antagonist is grounded in frustration and anxiety, and doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of being disabled in a big Japanese city – in this case, Osaka. Albeit, the film could have honed this into a sharper social commentary, but Tamura-san’s restraint feels like an obvious choice.
While Josee, the Tiger and the Fish will be a no-brainer for fans of anime, it does deserve a wider audience, if not just for its charm and vibrancy, then perhaps because we could all use a good love story right about now.